Being a Catholic parent with young kids is one of the greatest blessings, but taking them to Mass on Sundays can often feel like a very daunting task. The anxious thoughts run through my head on my way to church – What if they make noise? What if they are distracting other people’s prayer? Am I a bad parent if they don’t listen to me at Mass?
The journey that I, as a young dad, have gone through in my own mind has been both spiritually enriching and practically helpful. Mostly, I have learned from the witness and wisdom of my wife, Joanna. Through several conversations, Jo showed me that bringing our kids to Mass is a journey and a process, and that the most important thing is that we are at Mass together. She and I have found that there is no perfect recipe that will automatically instill great behavior at Mass, but there are ways to help guide your children to experiencing Mass in a more beautiful way by helping them become more attentive so that they can see the power behind worship.
Our son Benedict will be 3 years old in October, and our son Gabriel is 7 months old, and Ben is much more active than Gabriel. Despite the varying levels of attention-paying, we have found that there are ways to ease our worry and to lay a foundation for an enriching Mass experience. Here’s what’s been working for us:
Prepare them ahead of time
I have many memories of my parents telling my three brothers and me that we were going to an aunt or uncle’s house for dinner or a party. What I remember about these conversations was that they spoke to us about them a day or two before the event. Mostly what they communicated was that, when we arrived at the house, we must say hello to everyone and we must say thank you when we leave. They emphasized their expectations of good behavior.
This tiny conversation is somewhat of an odd memory to have, but I guess it stuck with me because it happened so often – it was just the culture of our home. Joanna and I have tried to take a similar approach to attending Sunday Mass as a family. As we approach the weekend, we will remind the boys that we will be going to church on Sunday, and that there is a certain way we behave: We’re quiet, we pray, we listen.
This means that when we are inevitably scurrying around on Sunday morning, trying to make it there on time, it is no surprise where we are going and why. This creates a clear expectation for them and makes church something for them to look forward to. We have definitely seen the value of making it a teachable moment. The more we talk about it and prepare them for Mass, the better they are once we arrive.
Get up close and personal
Sitting in one of the first few pews in the church has made our experience much more fruitful as well. This sounds crazy, I know. Why bring the whole family to the front for all to see and hear? But we have found that the closer we sit, the more our kids pay attention, and Benedict asks more questions. Now, when he points to the large crucifix and says, “Look, daddy Jeje” (his version of Jesus), we can explain what is happening and help him understand the power of what is going on. It has made Mass more personal for him.
Little children often get distracted at Mass. Joanna figured that being closer to the “action” would allow Benedict to focus better. This was so true. Even though he still might be a little more noisy than we would like, we have seen his awareness and curiosity of the different parts of Mass soar.
Point to Jesus
Finally, we all know that the sacrifice of the Mass is all about the love of Christ, and what he did for us. We know that we are closest to him at Mass because we are in his True Presence. So ever since the boys were babies we would try to point out Jesus at the elevation of his body and blood during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
We have seen the largest impact on Benedict from this practice, because now he knows that when we are going to Mass, we are going to see Jesus. If we can teach that as parents, then I think we have done our job and we can worry less about the chaos that is involved in bringing young children to church.
For me, the process has made me grow in my understanding of what it means to be a father. It is tiring and, at times, very challenging, but the moments when I actually take a step back and look at our family in the pew reminds me that keeping Christ at the center of our lives is truly the most important thing I can do for my family.